Formula 1 is back in business following a frantic opening day of running as the new season commenced in Bahrain

An action-packed two hours of Friday practice saw Max Verstappen complete a clean sweep as Red Bull continued its strong form off the back of pre-season testing heading into the first competitive weekend of 2021. 

Verstappen followed up his P1 effort in FP1 by grabbing the headlines with a new benchmark time in the more representative evening session under the lights in Sakhir, heading McLaren’s Lando Norris, who pipped Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton to second. 

Here’s what we learned from an intriguing first day of the new season, which provided our first glimpse of the competitive order…

Mercedes braced for ‘dogfight’ with Red Bull 

Mercedes came into the opening weekend on the back foot following a troubled pre-season test, though it appeared to make some progress with its W12 challenger looking more stable and balanced on Friday. 

Hamilton noted an improvement but admitted the team still has a “hill to climb”, while Valtteri Bottas described his W12 as “underivable” midway through second practice as he struggled to match his teammate’s pace over both a single-lap and on the race simulations. 

The seven-time world champion ultimately ended the day 0.235s off Verstappen’s session-leading time in FP2 and Mercedes boss Toto Wolff believes his team faces a “real dogfight” with Red Bull to come out on top this weekend.

“The conditions haven’t come towards us. It’s just a real dogfight,” Wolff told Sky Sports F1. “When you overlay the fastest laps and even the long runs, it’s just so very close that every kilogram in fuel load can make quite a big swing. So we don’t really know. 

“I think we are definitely closer here than we were in testing but I wouldn’t know what the position is versus Red Bull.”

Mercedes and Red Bull looked closely matched on the long run averages on the Medium tyre in FP2, with Verstappen ever so slightly faster than Hamilton, while their respective teammates Sergio Perez and Bottas lagged behind. 

We will have to wait until qualifying when the fuel loads come down and the engines are turned up for the true potential of the RB16B and W12 to be fully unleashed, but everything we’ve seen so far points towards a titanic battle for supremacy. 

The field looks closer than ever

The biggest takeaway from Friday practice was just how remarkably close the field looks. 15 of the cars finished FP2 within a second of each other and four different teams were within 0.5s of Verstappen’s fastest time. 

Barring some aerodynamic development work and changes to the rear area of the floor in a bid to cut downforce levels, this year’s cars are largely a carry-over from last season, and the stable regulations appear to have helped converge the pack together. 

Trying to establish a competitive order was already difficult enough during winter testing, and all the teams will still have something left up their sleeves for qualifying without wanting to reveal their full deck of cards just yet.

On Friday McLaren was the fastest of the midfield runners on both one-lap pace and the longer runs but Norris downplayed the team’s hopes of achieving a front-row starting berth, insisting he was unhappy with the balance and handling of his updated MCL35M. 

Ferrari also showed an encouraging turn of pace with Carlos Sainz ended FP2 fourth-quickest and just 0.280s adrift of Verstappen, while Charles Leclerc confirmed the team is yet to run “flat out” - suggesting there is more time to come from the Scuderia as it bids to recover from an abysmal 2020 campaign. 

As it did in testing, the AlphaTauri looked promising in the hands of F1 rookie Yuki Tsunoda, but neither Aston Martin nor Alpine featured inside the top 10 in FP2 as both teams elected to focus on race set-up work. 

New Aston Martin recruit Sebastian Vettel insists there is “still a lot left on the table” from his AMR21 after ending the day a lowly 14th, while returning two-time world champion Fernando Alonso hinted Alpine has more pace to unleash by teasing the rebranded French outfit has “something [left] in the pocket” for both qualifying and the race. 


Shortened Friday practice but more action

Friday marked the teams’ first experience of F1’s new shortened practice format for 2021, with running time for each session cut back from 90 minutes to 60. 

After a condensed three-day pre-season test, there was no time for the drivers to waste in their bid to get on top of their new machines. Less running resulted in more on-track action, with cars on track throughout the entirety of the pair of hour-long practices. 

It was a stark contrast to previous years where the drivers would often spend long spells of FP1 and FP2 sitting in their garages leaving the track to fall silent, much to the disappointment of the fans. 

But that was not the case on Friday, with all the teams keen to make the most of the limited running to cram in their respective qualifying and race set-up programmes. 

Speaking about the shorter sessions, Norris noted a new challenge, saying: “It’s quite a bit more difficult. All the drivers don’t have as much time to practice everything, so it kind of makes you just go out and drive.  

“It’s a bit more risk-reward and I like that, I think it’s good. I’m sure it’s a bit more stressful for the engineers and even for us sometimes but that’s the way it is. And I think it’s good.”

Kimi Raikkonen's clash with the Turn 2 barriers after a spin was a prime example of just how costly a mistake can prove to be with less time to play with. The Finn suffered a broken front wing that hampered the remainder of his FP2. 

A dramatic change in wind conditions over the weekend could mix things up, but we look set for a genuine fight for pole on Saturday and a fascinating scrap to determine the grid.  

 

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